App of the Week: Instagram

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App: Instagram Platform: iPhone Website: http://instagr.am/ Cost: Free

I began teaching a class on beginner photography last week for people with nice digital 35mm cameras who need help learning how to use them. When the idea was first presented to me, I suggested that approach rather than opening it up to anyone with a point-and-shoot or a cell phone camera mainly because, let's face it, they don't need much help.

Camera technology since I first picked up a Kodak Instamatic and toddled around behind my dad trying to shoot pictures like him has come a dramatic distance. Though the digital camera was invented in 1975, the first real usable versions of the invention didn't begin to reach consumers in large numbers until the late '90s, and they have increased alongside the expansion of the Internet into the homes and offices of average Americans.

Not long after, Flickr (which by the way is launching a major overhaul this week) and other social photo sharing networks emerged for people who wanted to share their snapshots, and it seemed like any college girl with a cheap pocket-sized digital camera could turn pouty, black and white self-portraits into a career in photography...or thereabouts (which completely altered the world of real pros, but that's for another blog post).

Now, the cameras built into smart phones rival those first digital cameras -- trust me, I had one. Millions of people literally carry around a powerful camera in their pocket every day, which has led developers to create photo apps that run the gamut from highly technical to downright ridiculous.

In the middle of all this is Instagram, the extremely popular iPhone app that allows users to tweak photos taken with the iPhone (or by other cameras and loaded into the iPhone's memory) with a number of algorithms and share them with an increasing community of users.

Like Hipstamatic, a photo app for the iPhone based on the Hipstamatic film camera, Instagram relies on the resurgence of interest in retro-style images common to the kinds of cameras I used when I was a kid. The gritty, oversaturated photos that seemed just like really crappy shots back in the '70s and '80s are now cooler than ever.

What makes Instagram work so well is simplicity. By limiting the range of choices offered to users when it comes to manipulating photos, the process is sped up and photos get from the phone to social networks, including Instagram's own, quickly and with little hassle. I've often thought that engineers overestimate the dexterity of users when it comes to apps, and simplicity, even if it means significantly fewer choices, makes for a better and more well used software.

The obvious choice for sharing these photos is via the typical monolithic social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram's own network is growing. Interestingly enough, Instagram has no Web component for its network. If you want to share photos on their network, it has to be done through the app. You can still see photos one at a time on the Instagram Web site if you have a direct link, but the lack of Web interface provides a kind of intimate, insider experience for its users and maintains that same philosophy of keeping everything as simple as possible.

I resisted apps like this for a long time, preferring to work within the confines of traditional photography, but the truth is great photos can be taken with the iPhone camera and the enhancements provided through Instagram are not insignificant. I've seen some fantastic shots on Instagram by both amateurs and pros alike.

A recent update, which cleaned up the interface a bit, and a number of add-on apps that do everything from creating photo collages to adding text to images make this my go-to app when I want to snap a photo with an iPhone.

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